Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Relations and Concrete Terms

If the relations of a term were different, that term itself would be different. If the term were different, its relations would be different. Relations are grounded in the nature of their terms. Consequently the relation can be what it is only if the terms are what they are. The character of the terms appoints and limits the relations in which they stand. Hence, if a thing is spatial, it has spatial relations. But it would be absurd to say that justice is northwest of courage, since the natures of these two preclude that kind of connection.

Most if not all kinds of relations presuppose a common character, usually or always a determinable type, in the related terms, without which the assertion of the specific relation would not merely be false but absurd. If one picture is more beautiful than another, they cannot differ in nature absolutely. There must be something common in respect to which they can be compared. Things temporally related must both be in time. Things spatially related must both be in space. If one person is the uncle of another, both must at least be organisms. Such relations are grounded in the nature of their terms, since if the common nature shared by the terms were to disappear, the relations would disappear as well.

Still, the extent of this determination by a common nature is easily overstated. If we know only that a thing is spatial, we know that it will have spatial relations, but what relations in particular, whether it is north or west or to the left of some other thing, remains unknown. The influence of the common nature does not extend that far.

So are such relations determined not by some universal character possessed in common, but by the concrete and specific natures of the terms? The White House in Washington is a mile or so northwest of the Capitol. You could not infer that particular relation simply from the fact that the two buildings were spatial. You could derive it from something else in the nature of either. The argument is indirect, but is nonetheless worse for that, since it involves showing both that the terms depend on their relations and the relations on the terms. You proceed through denial of the consequent. If you can show first that unless the terms were related in this way, they could not be what they are, you can then argue that their being what they are requires their being related in this way.

Can you show that without standing in these relations the Capitol would not be the Capitol or the White House would not be the White House? The first impulse is to say that this is absurd. Of course the Capitol might have been elsewhere. It might have been placed in New York or St. Louis, or at the geographical center of the country. And as for the White House, it might have either been placed there too, or set up in another state. But this does not answer the question. It assumes that we mean by 'Capitol' simply the chief legislative building of the country, and by 'White House' the official home of the president. And it says there is nothing about a chief legislative seat as such or a president's house as such, to require that they be at one place rather than another. But as an answer to the question, this is irrelevant and question-begging.

It's irrelevant because we're not talking about as such's or abstractions, but about specific concrete things, this unique building, for example. It is question-begging because it assumes that what holds of these abstractions must hold also of the concrete things that embody them. And there is no reason to believe this. 'Chief legislative building' and 'president's house' are not actual parts of nature, they are mere abstract universals. They are arrived at by cutting the connections which their originals had with their context. They are disjecta membra of nature, withered now and mummified. Whether a character can be carved from the body of nature without being affected we will soon investigate. Meanwhile, it's not to be assumed. A human heart in a bottle of alcohol does not even appear to be the thing it was. And one cannot assume abstractions without further consideration for realities.

So the terms we are discussing are not abstractions, but concrete terms. So the question is whether these terms, as they exist in nature, dictate their relations or not.

Could this specific Capitol building, as distinct from mere 'capitolness', have different spatial relations and yet be what it is? Well, what is it? Again, how do we isolate the essence? Well, the differentia of an individual being infinite, any restriction of the essence must be arbitrary. But we've already discussed that point.

If by individual things we mean what the ordinary person means by them, then they do dictate their terms, since their having the relations they have is part of the meaning of their being what they are.

For common sense 'the Capitol' does not mean merely a building of a certain design. If you were to stumble upon a building of the same size and proportions in the jungles of Uganda, it would not be what we mean when we speak of the Capitol. It's being in Washington rather than somewhere else is one of those relational properties that fall within the nature of character of the thing we mean. But a lot of other relational properties do too. To those who know it best, the Capitol is inseparable from its functions, and anyone can see that these connect it to the most complex and intimate way with the treasury, the department of state, the armed forces headquarters, and all the other departments of government in Washington DC. It is a building that must be accessible to hundreds of legislators who live around it. It is run by a staff whose roots are similarly wide-spread. It is surrounded by certain parks and approachable by certain streets. It maintains the closest contacts with airports and postal service centers, through which is has further contacts, with the various parts of the country.

If these functions and relations were removed, what the ordinary person means by 'the Capitol' would no longer remain. They are part of what that person means by the term, and when this is seen, it is also seen that to call them external is absurd. Particular spatial distances, such as from the Capitol to the White House, or the functions subserved by these, may be unimportant. But they belong to that set of connections without which, in the mass, what we mean by the Capitol would not be itself. Hence they are internal, even though they are internal only in degree.


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